When Adrienne Rich died last March in Santa Cruz, California, of complications from rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 82, the world lost a polarizing poet from a countercultural generation that included Allen Ginsberg and Amiri Baraka, Betty Friedan and William Burroughs. A public intellectual and an icon for the “triply marginalized—as a woman, a lesbian and a Jew” (according to her New York Times obituary), Rich allowed her poetry to serve her ideas on feminism and social justice. As a result, her poems and essays—more than thirty books over six decades—reached a broad and passionate audience, far beyond what most poets enjoy, and she was a hero to generations of feminists. She won almost every award available to poets in this country, though her principled stance against neoliberalism led her to refuse the National Medal of Honor in 1997: “The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate. A president cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.” The president in question, of course, was Bill Clinton.
The broad outlines of Rich’s life story are well known. Born in 1929 in Baltimore to a pianist mother and a doctor father (who was also a Johns Hopkins professor), Rich was groomed for middle-class success and, by her own account, complied with expectations. She graduated from Radcliffe; she won the Yale Younger Poets prize for her first book, A Change of World, chosen by W.H. Auden; she married a prominent economist and gave birth to three sons by 1959. Her earliest poems were formal and elegant, like this stanza from “The Diamond Cutters”:
Be hard of heart, because
The stone must leave your hand.
Although you liberate
Pure and expensive fires
Fit to enamour Shebas,
Keep your desire apart.
Love only what you do,
And not what you have done.
And then, as with many poets of her generation, the Vietnam War precipitated a crisis that shifted the foundations of her style as well as her life. She grew increasingly radicalized throughout the 1960s, during which she published the free-verse Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963). As she was writing the poems that would become The Will to Change: Poems 1968–1970, her family life fell apart, and in 1970 her husband committed suicide. In the aftermath of the catastrophe, Rich came out as a lesbian. Her essays on the eros between women and the ambivalence of motherhood were among the first of their kind. She became a hero to some for her courage, and a scourge to former admirers repelled by her newfound stridency, as in “The Phenomenology of Anger,” from her groundbreaking collection Diving Into the Wreck (1973):
I suddenly see the world
as no longer viable:
you are out there burning the crops
with some new sublimate
This morning you left the bed
we still share
and went out to spread impotence
upon the world
Again, Rich was not alone in this trajectory. Robert Lowell’s enormously influential Life Studies, published in 1959, was thought by many critics and poets at the time to have broken with the formalist, impersonal modernism of T.S. Eliot, an interpretation that paved the way for writers like Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and others to abandon their efforts at producing well-wrought urns in favor of a confessional mode of truth-telling that purportedly rejected poetic artifice. As new movements of liberation and multicultural pride surged in the 1970s, their designated poetries followed—and they generally adopted the rhetorical, free-verse mandate set by Rich when she forsook artifice as a legacy of the patriarchy. Formalism, Rich averred, was a kind of “asbestos gloves”—and for decades after, women poets would speak of form as “distancing.”
All this might seem like overkill; surely not every daughter of Auden and Yeats had to reject her inheritance so categorically and dramatically? And yet Auden’s description of Rich’s work begs for riposte: her poems “are neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs.” Ouch. Better to follow Blake, who might have included women in his maxim “I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s.”